Even SAFe

Reading Time: 4 minutes

There’s as much heat as light generated by conversations about SAFe (Scaled Agile Framework).  I want to share my views, for whatever they’re worth. They can be summed up in one sentence: the best day using SAFe is the day you agree you don’t need it any more.

I was stimulated by this really interesting post which has several levels of reaction in it.

I studied small business a lot, and the number one piece of advice to entrepreneurs is “get in to get out”:  start with your exit plan and work back. If you don’t, your business will be your burden to bear for life. This a strong analogy for SAFe. SAFe is trainer wheels. Put it in as part of a plan to take it out again.

I’m aware of the ideological objections to SAFe. It’s monolithic, prescriptive, hierarchal etc etc. Most of all, I think it has the same huge problem as the IT work framework ITIL: it empowers bureaucrats to create a really dysfunctional pile of constraints. It may not be designed that way, but it often happens that way. If you let SAFe become dogma, you have a problem. If you let it become bureaucratic, you’re in deep trouble.

Nevertheless, if an organisation chooses to adopt SAFe, there’s no point ranting against it. Use martial arts: use its momentum to roll it over, like a judo throw. Let it go. Minimise the harm. Use it to educate and enlighten until there is consensus that we don’t want it or need it, when people can see the limitations it imposes. Get agreement to get rid of it, progressively.

I’m a passionate champion of letting the people who do the work design the work. But that’s an ideal. Often we aren’t there yet: we don’t have sufficient understanding and acceptance of new principles to enable us to successfully and safely empower everyone and decentralised completely. If you take battery chickens and throw them into a paddock, they will flop around helplessly and panic in the bright light. It’s cruel. Ideologues can be dangerous. Even in the most Teal organisations, those who are entrusted with the ownership first pass their authority to others.  In less advanced cultures, what varies is how far and how quickly they authorise others to act. Advancement is a journey. We pass through transitional states where we need to have different levels of direction rather than invitation. SAFe can be an early one of those stages. It gives comfort to the existing power structure that there is hierarchy and control. It’s safe – such brilliant branding.

More than trainer wheels, in some situations SAFe acts as a Trojan horse. We smuggle new ideas in, wrapped in a conservative-looking framework. There is lots of good knowledge, wisdom even, embedded in SAFe.  At its heart it means well, it has the right principles in mind. It can do more good than harm if we are alert to the dangers.

Even Scrum is open to the same criticisms and concerns as SAFe – the difference is only a matter of degree. Scrum imposes strict rituals, rules, and cadences. If care isn’t taken, it gives succour to bean counters and waterfallers.  It’s a good day when a team decides they don’t want to scrum every day, or don’t want to do Scrum at all. We should embrace that: they’re mature enough as a team to design their own work. That’s wonderful. How many Scrum-based organisations willingly empower them?

Nobody knows the answers.  Our work is a complex system. It’s unknowable except by acting, by experimenting. Nobody can predict what will succeed, no matter how much you pay them. The only way to advance is to hypothesise and test. SAFe might work. Something else might work. Use our best brains to come up with a solid hypothesis, given what we know here and now. But that’s all it is, an educated guess. Let’s give it a go.

You will never get universal agreement to try something. Follow Fair Process (from Blue Ocean). We only need universal consent (” I can live with that”) not consensus (“I want that”), and then we are not coercive.

In summary: by all means raise concerns about SAFe.  But let’s have a bit less of the hating.

Let’s have consent on the minimum set of rituals for our group, our situation, right now; whether it is SAFe, LeSS, Scrum, Kanban, Toyota Kata, or morris-dancing.

Let’s always be ready to agree when to change them.

Let’s always agree it is an experiment. Be curious, and willing to give it a go. Even SAFe.